Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Space Highlights - September 21, 2016

September 21, 2016

Launch of the WorldView-4 Earth observation satellite from Vandenberg Air Force Base has been delayed due to California wild fires.

In a head-to-head bid with SpaceX to win a contract for the launch of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites for the U.S. government, United Launch Alliance has suggested that SpaceX's lower bid may not be the best deal for taxpayers, when taking into account ULA's more reliable launch record.

Europe's Vega small-satellite launch system placed five Earth observation satellites into orbit, including one for the Peruvian government and four for Google's Terra Bella.

Despite encountering a number of technical glitches once in orbit, Israeli officials report that they have recovered from many of the problems encountered by the Ofek-11 spy satellite, and that it has successfully transmitted its first photographs from space.

China has successfully launched the Tiangong-2 orbital laboratory, which is expected to serve as a mini-space station for Chinese astronauts, allowing them to remain in orbit for up to 30-days.

North Korea's official news agency has announced that a recent rocket engine test was personally overseen by dictator Kim Jong Un, in preparation for launching a new satellite.  North Korea has frequently been accused of using purported satellite launch attempts as a cover to test new ballistic missile technologies.  The recent rocket motor test comes shortly after North Korea's fifth and largest nuclear weapons test earlier this month.

Researchers at MIT have developed a new technique that they believe may help future Mars rovers zero-in on signs of ancient Martian life.  The technique relies on Raman spectroscopy, a non-destructive process used to identify the chemical composition of rocks, to look for the signature of ancient organic compounds.

The European Space Agency is planning one last mission for its Rosetta comet probe: a dive towards Comet 67P to collect close-up images before it crashes into the surface.  The Rosetta probe and Comet 67P are currently heading away from the sun, and within a few months, the solar-powered spacecraft will cease to function.  The close-encounter is therefore viewed as a means to collect additional data before the spacecraft shuts down.

Launched in 2004, the Cassini spacecraft is being prepared for its final year exploring Saturn, before its planned termination in September of 2017.  Starting in late November, the spacecraft will shift its orbit, sending it to the edge of Saturn's outermost rings.

Astronomers believe they have detected evidence for a Neptune-like exoplanet in formation around the star TW Hydrae, a 10-million year old star some 175 light years from Earth.  Studies of young planetary systems such as this help scientists to improve their models of how planets form, enhancing their understanding of our own solar system.

Scientists believe they have identified the first binary planet outside of our own solar system.  Binary planets exist when a planet and its moon are close enough in size that the mutual center of gravity of the two - and about which both orbit - is outside of the radius of either body.  Within our own solar system, only the dwarf planet Pluto and its moon Charon fit that definition.  Now scientists have identified a pair of similarly sized gas giants that straddle the line between planets and stars.  It remains unclear if the two objects are big enough to be brown dwarfs (which are large enough to fuse heavy hydrogen but not ordinary hydrogen as stars do), or are a pair of rogue, binary planets without a parent star.

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